Clive Tesar is reporting from the International Conference on Bear Research and Management in Anchorage, Alaska.
James Wilder has looked back over the history of people’s encounters with polar bears that ended badly for the people, and has reached the conclusion that “Polar bears don’t deserve their bloodthirsty reputation.” Wilder, a member of the Polar Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, says from 1870 to 2014, there were a total of 73 recorded attacks on people by polar bears, resulting in the deaths of 20 people. Considering the circumarctic range of polar bears, and the number of places where their habitat overlaps with populated areas, that is a relatively small number. Wilder points out that in recent years, brown bears have killed twelve times more people than polar bears.
Polar bears don’t deserve their bloodthirsty reputation.
As for the idea that “polar bears are the only bears that hunt people” Wilder says that is just plain wrong. He points out that in the records of bear attacks, the percentage of predatory attacks on people by polar bears (attacks where the bear was not just surprised, or protecting cubs, or defending food) is about the same as the percentage of predatory attacks on people by black bears.
However, there does seem to be cause for concern about the number of predatory attacks by polar bears rising. The figures show that most predatory attacks on humans by polar bears were in towns, by bears that were in below average condition. Wilder believes that as bears spend more time of land due to the climate-driven loss of sea ice, they will increasingly also be hungry, and that “more hungry bears equals more conflict”.
WWF and other agencies have increasingly been investing in polar bear patrols in Arctic communities to try to prevent more conflicts, to keep people and bears safer. If Wilder is correct, then that need will continue to grow.